Never Again - and Again and Again

by lan Williams

In These Times magazine, July 22, 2002


a review of the book

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

by Samantha Power


Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell is an eloquent and detailed testimony to why we should not let our government stand on the sidelines when faced with crimes against humanity.

Power chronicles the American government's responses to genocide, from the Turkish massacres of Armenians in World War I through the Holocaust and on to modern times, with Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.

The title comes from Warren Christopher's famous description of Bosnia as "a problem from hell," which he said resulted from "hatred" that was "centuries old." With suit' able encouragement, the media began to trace the problem back to the split of the Roman Empire-several hundred years before the first Slav hit the Balkans-as if, maybe, there's something in the water there.

What Christopher really meant was that Bosnia was a problem from hell for the Clinton administration, with sympathy for the victims and its public commitments to stop the killings weighed against the president's determination to avoid any American casualties. Above all, on this and other occasions, Christopher squirmed to avoid using the "G -word"-genocide-which would have triggered obligations to act under the Genocide Convention.

Power details the efforts by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin to launch the Genocide Convention to define "a crime without a name," as Churchill had characterized the reports coming from Occupied Europe. "Sovereignty cannot be construed as the right to kill millions of innocent people," Lemkin concluded, in what seems to be a self-evident truth but, in fact, flies in the face of received legal doctrine across the political spectrum.

Lemkin's campaign had been largely inspired by the Turkish massacres of Armenians. Following the Holocaust, of which he had early evidence, Lemkin fought tenaciously for the convention at the new United Nations. In 1948, with its passage, the world gave the concept of genocide a far more inclusive definition-"[acts] committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group"-than later alleged by those who would pooh-pooh events in the Balkans because "only" thousands were killed.

Ironically, despite the shouts of "Never Again" from all corners, the Senate did not ratify the Genocide Convention for almost 40 years-and then only in a desperate attempt by the Reagan administration to cover up the president's gaffe in laying wreaths for SS soldiers in the Bitburg Cemetery.

Power points out the awesome responsibility of the media in rousing public opinion. But she is candid about the awful way so much of the press has carried out that task. For example, the U.S. networks averaged 30 seconds per month of coverage of Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed their way through any citizens suspected of having an IQ above subnormal. The response of the U.S. government was to fight to keep the genocidal regime in its U.N. seat for some years after the ~ Vietnamese had driven them from power. Similarly, after Saddam Hussein's gassing of Kurdish insurgents in the late '80s, the same Republican right that recently returned to the bully pulpit of Washington was then derailing efforts to sanction Saddam for his genocidal activities. They denied the evidence, and materially and diplomatically encouraged him to continue his war against Iran, gas notwithstanding. The U.S. delegation - whose recent brief absence from the U.N. Human Rights Commission was considered such a blow to the organization's credibility-refused to support European allies who called for a Human Rights rapporteur against Iraq in 1989.

When not denying the evidence, another common trope from the U.S. government is to emphasize the enormity of resources needed for intervention. As Power demonstrates, history has tended to disprove such fearful hyperbole. In most recent cases, any signs of firmness-diplomatic and economic, let alone military-would have saved thousands of lives at little cost.

Perhaps one of the most shameful manifestations of invertebracy was the Clinton administration's stalling of reinforcements and resupply for the tiny, beleaguered U.N. force in Rwanda- which still managed to save thousands, even as Madeleine Albright (then U.S. representative at the United Nations) tried to strangle its supply lines rather than ask Congress for a few million dollars for peacekeeping. The lesson to all future perpetrators was clear: Mount your main massacres off-camera, except for a few showy killings of peacekeepers, to ensure no one will intervene.

Of course, even when governments do right, they manage to mess it up. Power mentions the final NATO air assault that accompanied the joint Bosnian Croat offensive against the Serbs. It showed that intervention could have been relatively painless and speedy 200,000 corpses earlier. But what she does not mention is that as soon as Bosnian forces were on the verge of taking more territory than earlier negotiations with Milosevic had envisaged, the air support was withdrawn. Srebrenica and Sarajevo notwithstanding, the Bosnian Serbs still kept their ethnically cleansed half of Bosnia.

In Kosovo, Power demonstrates there was every justification for intervention; she reminds those who wondered about the body count that many of those missing bodies turned up under police yards in Serbia. Even so, there was enough dubiety about both motives and methods to sully the first direct interference to stop genocide ever undertaken by the United States and NATO. The high-flying planes sacrificed bombing accuracy not to protect the pilots so much as the politicians, whose polls would suffer if they were downed. Clinton also obtusely discounted the only option that Milosevic feared, by announcing in advance that he would not put in ground forces.

Unaccountably, Power omits East Timor, or even the earlier pogroms in Indonesia, from her chronicle. There, the problem wasn't Washington's insouciance in the face of genocide-but active complicity in its fomentation. Neither does she waste much time on the left as a force in these developments. But here she is correct. While far too many on the left were denouncing imaginary hegemonic and opportunistic interventions on the part of Washington, Power knows that the administrations were doing all they could to stay out. She concludes: "The U.S. record is not one of failure-it is one of success. U.S. officials worked the system, and the system worked."

Intervention was avoided, and what is a river of corpses abroad in comparison with poll ratings at home?

The problem with such bargains is that we all pay the price in the end. "The last century shows that the walls that the U.S. tries to build around genocidal societies almost inevitably shatter," Power observes. In other words, ignoring genocide is not only immoral, it is impractical.

Carrying the torch in this field has not been the left, but human rights groups and activists across the world who have had the courage and tenacity to belabor all regimes that abuse their citizens. Their work has led to the small harbingers of global accountability: the arrest of Pinochet, the trial of Milosevic and the establishment of an International Criminal Court.

A world where Henry Kissinger and Ariel Sharon have to check with their lawyers at the same time as their travel agents is one that is surely improving.

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